16 “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. 17 But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. 18 You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; 20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
21 “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. 22 And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! 26 Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.
27 “Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. 33 But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.
Serpents and Doves (16-20)
In the previous passage, Jesus had just given extraordinary power and authority to His disciples. Everything that He is able to do, they are able to do. They raise the dead, heal the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, the diseased, etc. If you were one of His disciples you would think “Wow this is great! Look at all the amazing stuff I can do.” You probably would feel invincible! Nothing can stop me! And then Jesus gives you the rest of the story.
He is sending His disciples out as a flock of sheep surrounded by wolves. What is a flock of sheep like? They are vulnerable. They are easy for wolves to pick off, one by one. There is not much a sheep can do when a wolf attacks. Jesus is acknowledging what He is doing. He is sending them on a dangerous mission. And on this mission He wants them to be two things simultaneously. He wants them to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. It is one thing to be innocent, but innocence without shrewdness is naïveté. If you are innocent without being shrewd, you will be taken advantage of. And the flip side of being shrewd without being innocent is the shameless conman. Jesus tells His disciples, you are to be neither the conman nor the mark. Why must they be shrewd and innocent? Because men are going to deliver you up to councils and have you beaten and whipped in their synagogues. Then they will hand you over to Gentile rulers. And why are they being handed over to these rulers? For Jesus’s sake, for you to preach the gospel to them! Then Jesus tells them, what is not a prooftext to get out of doing sermon prep, but that when they are brought before these rulers, don’t worry about what you will say. The Spirit of God will give you the words to speak to them.
Before the Son of Man Comes (21-23)
Jesus continues on, explaining the ferocity of the opposition they will face. It will be so extreme, the natural bonds of family will be torn apart. Brothers killing brothers. Fathers killing children, children killing parents. The ministry of Jesus’s disciples to Israel will be opposed violently. Everyone is going to hate you. But those who keep going despite the fierce hatred they encounter, those who persevere to the bitter end—that is who Christ saves.
Then Jesus gives them a hint about this mission to Israel, and how urgent it is. They are to go from city to city, once they are persecuted in one place, shake the dust off the feet, go to the next one. Because the Son of Man will come in judgment on this place before they get through each city of Israel. Those cities that persecuted Christ’s people really did face judgment. All the cities and villages in Galilee and Judea were besieged and destroyed in the space of 40 years after Jesus said this. The Son of Man came in judgment, and Sodom and Gomorrah were a preferable place than Israel.
A Disciple is Not Above His Teacher (24-26)
Jesus makes it clear what He means. He has given this power to His Apostles, and what is going to happen to Him is going to also happen to them. He is going to be taken by the council and beaten and scourged, then delivered over to Gentile rulers to be executed. He knows this. The disciples do not yet. They only see the Jesus who has marvelous, miraculous power. It is easy to follow a Jesus like that. Much harder to follow a Jesus who marches right into the clutches of death. But He says to them: do not fear. Everything hidden will be revealed. And the Apostles mission is to do the revealing.
Do Not Fear (27-31)
Remember, Jesus ministry to Israel, was a puzzle, an enigma, He taught in riddles, in parables. When He healed Jews, He often told them not to tell anyone, to keep it under wraps. The job of the Apostles, however, is to shout from the rooftops what Jesus whispers to them; to preach clearly and boldly what Jesus had hidden away in parables.
And that is going to be what created the hostility. That is why the unrepentant Jews will want the Apostles dead. But Jesus says not to fear them. They can only kill the body. Fear the one who destroys both body and soul in Gehenna, in eternal torment. Fear God, not men.
We should only fear God, because God is in complete and total control. He is God we are not. He is God and those who hate Him (and who hate us) are not. A bird worth half a penny will not fall to the ground without the Father saying so. God has an exact accounting of every follicle on your head (how impressive this is really depends on the individual). Every atom in the universe operates at His discretion. He is in control. He is God. We are not.
And this fact is something that ought to give us great comfort. DO NOT be afraid, therefore. You are worth more than many sparrows. In fact, you are bought not with copper coins, but with the infinitely valuable blood of Jesus Christ. You are worth a lot to God.
Confession and Denial (32-33)
Because of all of this, because of the opposition the Apostles face, Jesus lays it down clearly for them: if you confess Christ before men, He will confess you before His Father. But if you deny Him before men, He will deny you before His Father. The prospect of being denied by Christ is terrifying—and it should be! Your life is a testimony of Christ. Every single human life is a testimony to Christ—either a testimony confessing Him before men, or a testimony denying Him before me. There is no third way. It is one or the other.
So what does the ministry of the Apostles to Israel in the New Testament period (from AD 30-AD 70) mean for us? Most of what Jesus said is very applicable to our own situation. No, we are not in Israel and the circumstances are not identical, but the commands of Jesus to His apostles, to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves, to not fear those who can only kill the body, to endure to the end to be saved, to confess him before men that He confesses you before His father, all of those are as much for you as they are for the apostles.
And what is similar to the fierce opposition and hatred the Apostles received is our situation today. We live in a world where reading the wrong Dr. Seuss book is a hate crime, after all. A writer I really like framed the situation of Christianity in America this way:
1. Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
2. Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
3. Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.1
We clearly live today in what he calls “Negative World.” Some people will mock anyone who calls the opposition Christians face today “persecution.” It began with “being forced to bake a cake against your will is not ‘persecution.’” And continues still today. “Being forced to keep your church closed while abortion clinics, strip clubs, and brothels are open is not ‘persecution’ just public health policy, silly Christian.’” “Being fired from your job because you believe what the Bible says about sex is not ‘persecution.’” People say this. They are wrong, of course. Christians today face serious negative consequences for their faith. And it is poised to continue to get worse for the foreseeable future.
It seems like God is putting His church into the furnace of affliction. This is not a comfortable or happy thing. But it is good. He is refining us. Those who are so timid that they fear the social consequences of confessing Christ boldly are becoming chaff that the wind blows away. If you think “I can’t be all Bible-y all the time. What would my friends and family think!? They’ll think I’m some kind of religious freak!” Well what does Jesus say about that? Deny me before men, and I deny you before my Father. If you are too scared of being socially ostracized by non-Christian friends and family for your faith, you’re not going to burn at the stake or be thrown to the Lions for Jesus. We are being put in “negative world” for God to refine us. To force us to become bold. The rubber is meeting the road.
In Positive and Neutral World, you could go preach the gospel saying “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” And that would work. People would hear it and think “oh cool. Tell me more.” But the problem is, the Gospel that Jesus preaches is “come and die.” “God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life, and that plan is for you to die.” Jesus message to His disciples as He is sending them out, is not one of defeatism. He is a King sending His troops into battle, explaining to them you are going to be shot at. Some of you are going to get arms and legs blown off in the battle. In war there are casualties. But remember what you are fighting for. Remember, Who it is you are fighting for. Don’t be afraid of fierce hostility and hatred of those who oppose you. The closer your are to victory the fiercer the opposition will be. There is no stopping Christ’s Kingdom. They can try to stop it by making you a social reject. They can try to stop it by taking away your livelihood. They can try to stop it by beating or torturing you. They can even try to stop it by executing you. It won’t work. And that’s just it, in His kingdom, victory is usually cleverly disguised as defeat. The pain and suffering you face on Christ’s behalf is the means of victory, because a disciple is not above his teacher. The only way to victory is the way of the Cross.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!